Saturday, January 16, 2010

Billions of Stars!

1/15 - Again last night we could hear coyotes howling in the desert. We have heard them a couple of times just after going to bed. It usually sets off all of the dogs in the campground for a few minutes.

During our morning walk in the desert a covey of quail came across the trail 15 or 20 yards in front of us, about a dozen of them just walking along, minding their own business.

Nancy did some more painting on the mail box project in the early afternoon and Dennis did some calling looking for shelf material, finally tracked down what we are looking for - naturally it is a lumber yard on the opposite side of Tucson, good thing this is not a big city!

Late in the afternoon we went to Kitt Peak for the Nightly Observing Program. Kitt Peak is a Federal observatory operated in partnership with a number of universities and has 25 optical and 2 radio telescopes. How best to describe the evening? WOW just seems inadequate! We arrived at 4:30 and received a briefing on the evening’s activities along with a very tasty box lunch. There were about 48 people for the program, to be split into three groups. They asked for twelve volunteers with warm jackets to go to the telescope that only had a slide off roof instead of a dome, therefore a little more exposed to the cold (it dropped into the 30’s during the evening since we were at 6,875 feet above sea level). We joined that group since we had our good winter jackets, hats and gloves with us. Turned out to be a good choice as we had an excellent instructor and we had the ability to look up at the star studded sky while others were looking through the telescope.

After the box lunch the entire group went up to the “sunset outlook” and our instructor told us about a lot of things that we can see at the time of sunset that most of us had never thought about, including the obvious fact that we were watching the western horizon coming up, not the sun going down! Not a real spectacular sunset due to low clouds on the horizon, but that was OK since it was a clear, cloudless evening on the peak. After sunset we split up into groups, and after a brief lecture we were all given binoculars and we went outside for an initial look at the night sky.

WHAT A FANTASTIC VIEW OF THE STARS! The only other times we have seen the night sky that clearly were when we were on an island off the Irish coast and in remote areas of New Zealand. The Milky Way was easily visible (remember that from when you were a kid? Used to be we could all see it.) Our instructor used a laser pointer to point out the various planets and stars, as well as several constellations. We could even see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye and a great look at it with our binoculars. With the instructors help we were able to pick out a number of constellations like Orion and Taurus.

Then we went back inside for a brief warm-up and then up to the telescope. While giving a constant stream of commentary on the stars, the instructor aimed the telescope and we took turns viewing a number of stars and planets (Jupiter and Mars) through the telescope. While others were viewing we were able to stand and just enjoy the view of the heavens. We saw a number of shooting stars during the evening, our instructor was not sure if there was an active meteor shower, but Dennis was able to look it up on the Pocket Universe app on his I-Pod! It was the Delta Cancrids, visible in Cancer. We also saw a couple of satellites going across the sky.

Sunset was at 5:38 and the program lasted until about 9:15. During the orientation they stressed the need to keep white lights covered on the mountain to avoid disturbing the telescopes. At the end of the evening we had to drive the first mile down the mountain without headlights and be guided by a van. Cars with always on lights had to have covers taped over them. As luck would have it Nancy and Dennis were standing by the door when they started to organize the first group to be led down the first mile in the dark.So we got out to the parking lot and were first in line behind the guide van, which was nice since the smart car has a fantastic set of Hella headlights and we were able to make pretty good time down the mountain and were first on the road back towards Tucson. It is just about an hour’s drive from our campground to Kitt Peak.

A couple other items of interest: Tucson has a strict lighting ordinance and the glow in the northern sky from Phoenix was brighter than that of Tucson! Given the state of current science, none of the telescopes are actually used for visual observation like we were doing, they are remotely operated and monitored in most cases. While we were out looking at the night sky one of the telescopes near us opened up and started moving. Our instructor said it was being operated remotely from one of the universities in Georgia or Florida!

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